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Cognitive development


Cognitive development is a field of study in neuroscience and psychology focusing on a child's development in terms of information processing, conceptual resources, perceptual skill, language learning, and other aspects of brain development and cognitive psychology compared to an adult's point of view. A large portion of research has gone into understanding how a child imagines the world. Jean Piaget was a major force in the discovering of this field study, forming his "theory of cognitive development". Many of his theoretical claims have since fallen out of favor. However, his description of the tendencies of cognitive development (e.g., that it moves from being dependent on actions and perception in infancy to understanding of the more observable aspects of reality in childhood to capturing the underlying abstract rules and principles in adolescence) is generally still accepted today. Besides, many of the phenomena that he discovered, such as object permanence in infancy and the conservations in school age children, attract the interest of current researchers. In recent years, alternative models have been advanced, including the neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development, which aim to integrate Piaget's ideas that stood the test of time with more recent theorizing and methods in developmental and cognitive science.

A major controversy in cognitive development has been "nature vs. nurture", or nativism versus empiricism. However, it is now recognized by most experts that this is a false dichotomy: there is overwhelming evidence from biological and behavioral sciences that from the earliest points in development, gene activity interacts with events and experiences in the environment. Another issue is how culture and social experience relate to developmental changes in thinking. Another question is phylogenic convergence or homology with non-human animals. Most aspects of learning and cognition are similar in humans and non-human animals. These issues propagate to nearly every aspect of cognitive development.


  Speculated core systems of cognition

. Empiricists study how these skills may be learned in such a short time. The debate is over whether these systems are learned by general-purpose learning devices, or domain-specific cognition. Moreover, many modern cognitive developmental psychologists, recognizing that the term "innate" does not square with modern knowledge about epigenesis, neurobiological development, or learning, favor a non-nativist framework. Researchers who discuss "core systems" often speculate about differences in thinking and learning between proposed domains. . Researchers who posit a set of so-called "core domains" suggest that children are innate sensitivity to specific kinds of patterns of information. Those commonly cited include:


Infants appear to have two systems for dealing with numbers. One deals with small numbers, often called subitizing. Another deals with larger numbers in an approximate fashion.[1]Right


Very young children appear to have some skill in navigation. This basic ability to infer the direction and distance of unseen locations develops in ways that are not entirely clear. However, there is some evidence that it involves the development of complex language skills between 3 and 5 years. Also, there is evidence that this skill depends importantly on visual experience, because congenitally blind individuals have been found to have impaired abilities to infer new paths between familiar locations.

Later in life, adults can use language and symbols (e.g., maps) to reason about information. When an adult's ability to process languages is engaged in other tasks, they reason in different ways.

  Visual perception

One of the original nativist versus empiricist debates was over depth perception. There is some evidence that children less than 72 hours old can perceive such complex things as biological motion.[2] However, it is unclear how visual experience in the first few days contributes to this perception. There are far more elaborate aspects of visual perception that develop during infancy and beyond. [elaboration of this section is forthcoming!]


Young children seem to be predisposed to think of biological entities (e.g., animals and plants) in an essentialistic way.[3] This means that they expect such entities (as opposed to, e.g., artifacts) to have many traits such as internal properties that are caused by some "essence" (such as, in our modern Western conceptual framework, the genome).

  Language acquisition

A major, well-studied process and consequence of cognitive development is language acquisition. The traditional view was that this is the result of deterministic, human-specific genetic structures and processes. Other traditions, however, have emphasized the role of social experience in language learning. However, the relation of gene activity, experience, and language development is now recognized as incredibly complex and difficult to specify. Language development is sometimes separated into learning of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and discourse or pragmatics. However, all of these aspects of language knowledge--which were originally posited by the linguist Noam Chomsky to be autonomous or separate--are now recognized to interact in complex ways.

  Other notable theoretical views on cognitive development

Of course, the human mind expands far beyond these simple forms of cognition. For example, children are not born knowing what force is, but they are capable of eventually learning.

  Whorf's hypothesis

Benjamin Whorf, while working as a student of Edward Sapir, posited that a person's thinking depends on the structure and content of their social group's language. In other words, it is the belief that language determines our thoughts and perceptions. For example, it used to be thought that Greeks, who wrote left to right, thought differently than Egyptians since the Egyptians wrote right to left. Whorf’s theory was so strict that he believed if a word is absent in a language, then the individual is unaware of the object’s existence[4]. This theory was played out in George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm; the pig leaders slowly eliminated words from the citizen’s vocabulary so that they were incapable of realizing what they were missing[5]. The Whorfian hypothesis failed to recognize that people can still be aware of the concept or item, even though they lack efficient coding to quickly identify the target information[6].

  Quine's bootstrapping hypothesis

Willard Van Orman Quine (1908-2000) suggested that there are innate conceptual biases that determine the language meaning that we acquire, and the concepts and beliefs that we acquire, as we develop. Quine's theory relates to other nativist philosophical traditions, such as the European rationalist philosophers. A relevant figure in this nativist tradition for cognitive developmental theory is Immanuel Kant.

  Piaget's theory

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) believed that people move through stages of development that allow them to think in new, more complex ways.

Many of his claims have fallen out of favor. For example, he claimed that young children cannot conserve number. However, further experiments show that children did not really understand what was being asked of them. When the experiment is done with candies, and the children are asked which set they want rather than tell an adult which is more, they show no confusion about which group has more items.

  Neuroscience and Cognitive Development

During development, especially the first few years of life, children show interesting patterns of neural development and a high degree of neuroplasticity. The relation of brain development and cognitive development is extremely complex and, since the 1990s, a growing area of research.

  Erik Erikson

Erikson took a "psychological view" of development. His model proposed a series of eight stages (known as the “Eight Stages of Man”) moving from birth to adulthood. When these stages are not mastered, certain difficulties arise. For example, the failure to successfully master toilet training would result in shame rather than autonomy. Based on this Erikson proposed that children have an awareness of their own skills and progress.[7]


Concepts are the fundamental agents of intellectual work. Concepts are viewed as the distillate of sensory experience and the vital link between external inputs and overt behaviors.[8]

  Mental Construct

Concepts as mental constructs are the critical component of a maturing individual’s continuously changing, enlarging cognitive structure. When considered from a learning point of view over short time periods, a person’s concepts provide the basis for interpreting and organizing incoming information and also for forming principles and other complex relations among concepts. Maturing individuals attain concepts according to their unique informal and formal learning experiences and their maturational patterns. The word concept not only designates mental constructs of individuals but also the meanings of words and other symbols accepted by social groups who speak the same language.[9]

  Concrete – Abstract Concepts

A means of classifying concepts is in terms of whether the defining attributes can be perceived. Concepts is having perceptible attributes, such as animal, swim, or color, are concrete whereas concepts whose attributes cannot be directly perceived, such as imagination, are abstract.[10]

  Concepts and Words

The term ‘word’ is usually used to refer to the meaningful basic elements of a language. Words can be spoken or written. When they are written the boundaries of a word are clear because words are separated from each other by spaces. When words are spoken the boundaries are less clearly marked – we must draw on our knowledge of the language to segment the speech we hear into meaningful units. That this is not a trivial task is evident if a comparison is made between the tasks of counting the number of words written in a language we do not understand and counting the number of words spoken in the same language. The former task is extremely easy and the latter extremely difficult. This consideration of words is important to the language acquisition process. Children must segment the speech they hear into the appropriate-sized units in order to learn a language. If we were to say that a child learning language has heard words when what has been heard was a continuous stream of speech that was not understood, then, clearly, we would not have provided a good description of the stimulus input that the child has received. Accordingly, we need a term for a continuous period of speech that does not carry with it presumptions about the decomposition of the speech.

Children understand what is spoken through two methods. First, input to children is simplified by comparison with speech among adults. Adults talk to children more slowly, in shorter utterances, with repetition of key words, and in higher pitch than when they talk to other adults. This makes it easier for children to identify the units (i.e. words) that make up the utterance. Second, in conjunction with this environmental help, children selectively attend to stressed elements of the adult utterance and, to a large extent, ignore the rest. Since the referential words of an utterance are typically the ones that are stressed (and repeated) in adult speech to children, this means that children will extract the major content words initially from a sentence. It is because of this selective filtering of the input that children’s own initial utterances are composed largely of content words and lack the functor words (such as articles and prepositions) that are unstressed in adult speech. It is this that gives children’s speech it characteristic ‘telegraphic’ character in the early stages of word combination.[11]

  Induction and Concept Change

A child who learns a concept, such as dog, will learn the same concept as an adult in the sense that the concept will have the same extension for both child and adult. However, the adult’s and the child’s concepts will undoubtedly be different in spite of this. The adult’s concept will include much more information about the characteristic of dogs, their relations to other species and so forth.

The role of induction is to allow generalization of new information beyond the instances about which the information was acquired.[12]

  The Memory System

Memory is involved at each level of concept attainment – concrete, identity, classification, and formal. At any point in time, the type of information that is stored in memory and the form in which it is stored are related to the level which the individual has attained, to the individual’s unique mode of storing information, and also to the external conditions of learning the individual has experienced related to the particular concept.[13]

  Concrete Level

Attaining a concept at the concrete level involves attending to something – an object, event, quality, or relation – discriminating it from other objects, events, qualities, or relations, forming a representation of it, and storing it in secondary memory. Then, when the same object is experienced again, the stored representation is retrieved from secondary memory and used to test the incoming phenomenal representation as being the same or different. The concrete level representation of the object is presumed to be constructed by the individual, rather than being an automatically produced literal copy, photograph, or template.[14]

  Identity Level

To attain the same concept of an object as in the identity level as the concrete level for the first time requires having the concrete level image stored in secondary memory. Then, when the same object is experienced again but from a different spatiotemporal perspective, in a different context, or in a different sensory modality, the phenomenal image, held briefly in working memory, is tested against the earlier concrete-level image. Accordign to Cognitive Learning and Development (CLD) theory, personas are able to move from the concrete to the identity level as they become able to generalize across spatiotemporal perspectives, sensory modalities, and contexts. This ability emerges with maturation and learning. The maturing child becomes able to test, for example, the incoming phenomenal image of two triangles against a concrete-level image and generalize that the forms are the same. The same individual also becomes able to discriminate either more properties of the triangular form or some of its less obvious properties and also to ignore orientation and other contextual information.[15]

  Classification Level

Attaining a concept at the beginning classificatory level, in comparison with the identity level, presumes that persons become able to attend to and discriminate more attributes and also attributes that are less obvious. They also are able to form more highly differentiated yet generalized representations and store and hold them in secondary memory. Further, they become able to generalize across at least two different examples of the same concept that necessarily have the same common defining attributes but that also have one or more different variable attributes. To do this, they must already have formed a concept of one of the examples at the identity level and must be able to do so for the other, so that each of the examples is recognized as the same across the different spatiotemporal orientations or contexts in which it may be experienced, or across the different sensory modalities, as the case may be. It is probable that concepts of at least two examples have been formed at the identity level before the beginning classificatory level is attained.

Children form may concepts at the beginning classificatory level before first grade, possibly before they have acquired the labels for the concept or any of its attributes. Many are still at the classificatory level years later, not having attained the formal level, at which time they may have some or all of the labels. When a label is available for a concept at the classificatory level, it may be stored initially as part of the trace along with image of a typical example and contextual information.[16]

  Formal Level

Attaining a concept at the beginning formal level has several prerequisites. The person will readily be able to categorize newly encountered instances as members of certain concepts and therefore as nonmembers of other concepts. Also, the person will be able to discriminate the defining attributes of the particular concept. Another perquisite is that the person will have the names of the defining attributes and also of the concept itself. The primary test of whether the concept has been attained at the formal level is whether the person, when encountering examples and nonexamples of the concept, can evaluate them as examples or nonexamples on the basis of the presence or absence of the defining attributes of the concept. This can be illustrated with the concept tree. When a person encounters two instances of a plant, one of which is a tree and the other a shrub, the person must first identify one properly as a tree, and then indicate why it is so categorized on the basis of the defining attributes of tree.[17]

  Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

  Sensorimotor Stage

Lasts from birth until about 2 years of age. During this stage the child lacks true thoughts; behavior is organized as a function of some sensory or motor effect that it has. These effects are precisely described by a sequence of six substages. During this stage the child moves from having only innate reflexes at the beginning to being able to represent mentally the external world at the end. Between reflexes and ‘true representations’ lie schemata. Schemata are the non-symbolic organizational structures through which the child’s interactions with the world are mediated during the sensorimotor stage (just as interactions are mediated by cognitive structures during later stages). Schemata arise from the actions the child performs on the world. Thus, Piaget writes of a schema for looking, a schema for grasping, a schema for imitating. Schemata eventually develop into mental representations when the child begins to store information about the world and use that information as the basis of later behavior. It is during this stage, at about 8 to 10 months, that the child begins to understand object permanence, or the concept that an object continues to exist when not visible.[18] The ability to represent reality mentally is the beginning of thought proper, according to Piaget, and it marks the transition to the preoperational stage of development.[19]

  Preoperational Stage

Lasts from 2 years of age until 6 or 7. It can be characterized in two somewhat different ways. In his early work, before he had developed his structuralist theory of cognition, Piaget described the child’s thought during this period as being governed by principles such as egocentrism, animism and other similar constructs. Once he had proposed his structuralist theory, Piaget characterized the preoperational child as lacking the cognitive structures possessed by the concrete operational child. The absence of these structures explains, in part, the behaviors Piaget had previously described as egocentric and animistic, for example an inability to comprehend that another individual may have different emotional responses to similar experiences.[20][21]

  Concrete Operational Stage

Lasts from 6 or 7 years until about 12 or 13. During this stage the child’s cognitive structures can be characterized by group therapy. Piaget argues that the same general principles can be discerned in a wide range of behaviors. One of the best-known achievements of this stage is that of conservation. In a typical conservation experiment a child is asked to judge whether or not two quantities are the same – such as two equal quantities of liquid in a short and tall glass. A preoperational child will typically judge the taller, thinner glass to contain more, while a concrete operational child will judge the amounts still to be the same. The ability to reason in this way reflects the development of a principle of conservation.[22]

  Formal Operational Stage

This final stage begins at ages 12 or 13. It marks a movement from an ability to think and reason from concrete visible events to an ability to think hypothetically; to entertain what-if possibilities about the world. The cognitive structures of this stage can be characterized by four rules for manipulating the content of thought: identity, negation, reciprocity, and correlativity.[23]


  1. ^ Feigenson, L., Dehaene, S., Spelke, E. (2004). Core Systems of Number. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8. 307-314.
  2. ^ Simion, F., Regolin, L. & Bulf, H. (2008). A predisposition for biological motion in the newborn baby. PNAS 105(2), 809-813.
  3. ^ Gelman, S (2003). The Essential Child: Origins of Essentialism in Everyday Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-518198-0. 
  4. ^ Hunt, E., & Agnoli, F. (1991). The Whorfian hypothesis: A cognitive psychology perspective. Psychological Review, 98(3), 377-389. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.98.3.377
  5. ^ Mosenthal, P. (1975). Language and thought. Theory Into Practice, 14(5), 306-311. doi:10.1080/00405847509542592
  6. ^ Hunt, E., & Agnoli, F. (1991). The Whorfian hypothesis: A cognitive psychology perspective. Psychological Review, 98(3), 377-389. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.98.3.377
  7. ^ Hurley, Anne. "Cognitive Development: Overview". http://www.saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/psych406-5.3.pdf. Retrieved 23 January 2012. 
  8. ^ Klausmeier, J. Herbert & Patricia, S. Allen.“Cognitive Development of Children and Youth: A Longitudinal Study”. 1978
  9. ^ Klausmeier, J. Herbert & Patricia, S. Allen.“Cognitive Development of Children and Youth: A Longitudinal Study”. 1978
  10. ^ Klausmeier, J. Herbert & Patricia, S. Allen.“Cognitive Development of Children and Youth: A Longitudinal Study”. 1978
  11. ^ McShane, John. “Cognitive Development: an information processing approach”. 1991
  12. ^ McShane, John. “Cognitive Development: an information processing approach”. 1991
  13. ^ Klausmeier, J. Herbert & Patricia, S. Allen.“Cognitive Development of Children and Youth: A Longitudinal Study”. 1978
  14. ^ Klausmeier, J. Herbert & Patricia, S. Allen.“Cognitive Development of Children and Youth: A Longitudinal Study”. 1978
  15. ^ Klausmeier, J. Herbert & Patricia, S. Allen.“Cognitive Development of Children and Youth: A Longitudinal Study”. 1978
  16. ^ Klausmeier, J. Herbert & Patricia, S. Allen.“Cognitive Development of Children and Youth: A Longitudinal Study”. 1978
  17. ^ Klausmeier, J. Herbert & Patricia, S. Allen.“Cognitive Development of Children and Youth: A Longitudinal Study”. 1978
  18. ^ Ann Hurley.“Cognitive Development: Overview.” pp. 2 [1] Retrieved May 29, 2012
  19. ^ McShane, John. “Cognitive Development: an information processing approach”. 1991
  20. ^ McShane, John. “Cognitive Development: an information processing approach”. 1991
  21. ^ Ann Hurley. “Cognitive Development: Overview.” pp. 2[2] Retrieved May 29, 2012.
  22. ^ McShane, John. “Cognitive Development: an information processing approach”. 1991
  23. ^ McShane, John. “Cognitive Development: an information processing approach”. 1991
  • Klausmeier, J. Herbert & Patricia, S. Allen.“Cognitive Development of Children and Youth: A Longitudinal Study”. 1978. pp. 3, 4, 5, 83, 91, 92, 93, 95, 96
  • McShane, John. “Cognitive Development: an information processing approach”. 1991. pp. 22-24, 140, 141, 156, 157

  Further reading

  • Walkerdine, Valerie (1990). The Mastery of Reason: Cognitive Development and the Production of Rationality. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-05233-7. 

  See also


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